Fresh Faces, Universal Access, and Really Plain Text
Last time I wrote about the goings on surrounding Planet *buntu, I went on about one of my favorite topics; open formats and the future of information. By information, I mean content in all its wondrous forms, from plain text, to Web content, to music, to video, and to everything in between. Sadly, I find myself wanting to rant again on this topic even if it means laying into one of my favorite corporations. So I decided to start with something positive and friendly; something of beauty to prepare you for the ugliness to follow. It's only fair and it will, I hope ease the pain.
So let's go back a few days . . . It was February the 11th; my wife and I went out to a superb dinner at Benjamin's Restaurant in St. Jacobs, Ontario. My parents were babysitting and Sally and I had the evening to ourselves. It was a perfect way to celebrate the big day. Earlier that day, I received an early Valentine's Day present from Kubuntu and the KDE folk. Yes, KDE 4.4 was released to the Kubuntu repositories so I wasted no time in upgrading.
The 4.4 release will be come with Kubuntu 10.04, that old Lucid Lynx, but it was backported to 9.10 for those of us who prefer to run a stable release over alpha code. I'll tell you how to add those repositories to your system in a moment, but let me start by telling you about KDE 4.4.
It's so beautiful, I think I'm going to cry (see Figure 1 -- click for a full sized image).
Before you say that I don't care about GNOME, let me tell you that I have also been using GNOME a fair bit lately. Specifically, I've been playing with the gnome-shell, a package you can install directly from the repos if you are running a recent Ubuntu and a package you really should take a look at of you want to see where things are headed in the GNOME world.
Actually, a surprising amount of controversy surrounds the GNOME shell, perhaps because it is quite the departure from the old way of doing GNOME. It is, however, quite an attractiive reinventing of the GNOME environment. I personally really love it. Seriously. Yeah, it needs as little bit of work, but running the GNOME shell, I feel like GNOME is finally growing up. You know, getting ready to leave home. In my opinion, it is definitely a step in the right direction (see Figure 2).
While you are in the GNOME shell, all you need to do is move your mouse into the right hand corner of the desktop and it will open up the workspaces controls on the left hand side of your screen. You can start programs, visit defined places, peruse or open recent documents, and launch programs. Over to the left are your workspaces, presented in a way that looks a little like what KDE 4.4 and Plasma offers (although KDE has virtual desktops within workspaces). A plus sign inside a grey circle floats below and to the right of your last workspace. You add workspaces by clicking that plus sign and open applications in those workspaces. To zoom in to the workspace you want to use, just click on it. It will expand to fit your screen.
As I launch into the following tirade, it is important that you understand something. I love the CBC. That would be the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Generally speaking, I don't trust news networks. Sure, I follow the news from many different sources, but I take every report with a small grain of salt. That's because while there are many stations and newspapers, a small handful of corporations control the majority, making truly independent journalism a rarity. So I question, unless of course it's FOX News and its ilk in which case I take it for what it is; a colossal joke gone way too far -- it might have been funny when it started folks, but now people actually believe it. But I digress . . .
The CBC, however, is a news organization. A real news organization. I know that humans run all news organizations and as such, there can be opinions (and will be) but the CBC actually tries to keeps its opinions to itself and provide a balanced view of the news. I guess you could say they report rather than create news. Without a doubt they have people who express opinions, but those are clearly identified as opinion. Let's just say that the CBC has actual journalists working there.
You may disagree with me on the above -- feel free to -- but I say it to make it clear how I feel about the CBC before I launch into my tirade . . . sorry, I mean criticism . . . of the CBC.
If you are an Ubuntu or Kubuntu desktop user, or any other kind of Linux user for that matter, and you decide to visit the CBC to watch current videos of news stories, you'll wind up staring at and waiting for content that never comes. If you choose to click on the help link, you will see the following.
Apparently, in 2010, the CBC can't serve up content to Linux users. In the Web 2.0+ world of universal access and wide open content delivery, the CBC can't produce content viewable on browsers used by millions of people (Firefox, Google Chrome, etc) under Linux. Flash, whatever you may think of the format, is well supported on Linux, certainly well enough to allow we Linux users to view the gazillion YouTube videos uploaded each day. But the CBC, or perhaps just the people they hire, don't know that in 2010, it is possible to deliver audio, video, and text content to pretty much any graphical browser in the known universe. Obviously, those people are still using reference texts from 1998 and just now learning about CSS. HTML3 is still just a glimmer in their eye and ActiveX seems like a pretty cool idea.
I did hint that this was a bit of a tirade.
This isn't a technological impossibility folks. Any kid sitting at his or her computer at home is able to produce and upload video content that Linux users can view, whether we like it or not. Why can't the CBC? And if the CBC is choosing to develop applications that will only work on Windows (or a properly tuned Mac), then it's a monumentally stupid decision. Public content should be accessible to the public and the CBC is a national corporation whose purpose it to serve the people whose taxes assist in paying for the corporation's continued existence. That means people running Linux as well (and there are a lot of us out there).
Seriously, it's 2010. Universal access and platform agnostic content delivery is not only possible, it's what's called a standard and any Web developer worth their hourly rate should be able to produce content that Firefox running under Linux, with the appropriate plugin (yes, I'm talking about Flash right now -- don't want to confuse things), can view. This redesign has catapulted the CBC's Website backward several years.
Closed formats are bad. DRM is a stupid idea. Producing OS specific content for the Web is equally stupid.
Please, good people at the CBC. I still love you guys, but you are really putting a strain on our relationship. Rethink and retool. "There is still time . . . Brother."
And since I'd like to leave this on a positive note, allow me a moment to share a fascinating little word processor with you.
I write a fair bit. In fact, I write pretty much every day. A lot of what I do necessitates using rich content editors and word processors. Graphics are a big part of what I do so I use OpenOffice.org for word processing and various Web-based tools for creating content there (I am writing this using Drupal and the FCKeditor). But every onece in a while, I just want to create plain old text. Most writers will tell you that it's frightfully easy to find distractions. Most of us love having written but hate writing (to paraphrase Dorothy Parker) because, let's face it, writing is hard, usually lonely, work. When you're alone for hours, your mind naturally seeks out whatever distraction it can find, and that includes the italics and bold buttons, the font changes, the spell checker, all those pretty icons, and of course, the greatest distraction ever created, the Web browser. As an aside, my friend Robert Sawyer, has a PC set up that doesn't let him surf the Web. He also writes using an old DOS editor, Wordstar.
I've made fun of Rob in the past about this but I am starting to think he may have been right all along -- please, please, don't tell him. Lately, when I am immersed in plain text work, I have been using JDarkRoom, a very plain full-screen text file editor with none of the usual bells and whistles. And I mean none (see Figure 4).
You get a black screen with a flashing cursor. That's it. There's nothing there to distract you from the job of writing. It's just you, your words, and your thoughts. And it's strangely freeing. If you're a writer, working on a modern, high-tech Linux desktop, and you're easily distracted, visit the JDarkRoom site and download a copy. You'll get a in hand. If you are writing a speech, novel, essay, thesis or just need to be able to concentrate on your writing, then JDarkRoom (based on a Mac application called WriteRoom) may help you.
You do need a Java runtime environment to run it. Do so with this command.
java -jar JDarkRoom.jar
Remember to press Ctrl+H for a little help getting started. After all, the darkness can be a tad confusing.
Until next time . . .